Tense minutes pass, waiting for silence and a chance to speak. The air is like a stomach, churning, hot and hungry and we’re being digested. We can’t tell if we’re being followed, but everyone everywhere watches the colors of our foreign skins.
The Royal Theater shows movies, it turns out. We buy two tickets, then glide through a lobby of buzzing flies and mirrors, then down the isle of a screening room where the gallery of eyes finally miss us in the flicker of a black and white larger and brighter than ours. We don’t pause there but go straight out the back door.
An alley as wide as my arms leads to a laundry shack with a thatched roof and a dozen clotheslines holding empty shirts like ghosts in clouds of steam.
We pause long enough to trade in our clothes, her for a dress that looks like somebody’d seen a picture of a flapper outfit and tried to reproduce it out of broadcloth, and me for local style green slacks and shirt. I say goodbye to the striped suit. I hadn’t noticed it split open down the back. The tear looks like a wound.
A covered rickshaw hides us and finds us a new hotel to hole up in – a long single-story affair of baked clay brick and thatched roof.
Once we’ve got a room and the door closes behind us, air enters my lungs for what feels like the first time.
Jenny sits on the edge of the bed and buries her face in her hands. I collapse next to her on the bristling mattress and stretch out my legs. It’s not a mattress. It’s a bunch of hay stuffed into a sheet, suspended on interwoven leather straps stuck to the metal frame with squeaky springs. It’s pokey and uneven, but it still feels like a hug and a bottle of wine.
The room echoes with bird calls and the distant beginnings of nightlife. The aroma of dirt floor, dry grasses in the thatched roof, and the clay brick dust mix congenially with fruit and exhaust from the merchant trucks passing on the road outside.
“Yeah,” I say at last. “Is it just me or am I still falling down?”
“That was a bust,” says Jenny. “We got nothing. Well except for the wrong kind of attention.”
“Not nothing.” I cover my face. “Did you see Mitts? The way he was laying, he wasn’t beaten or shot. It didn’t look like a violent killing. Might have been poison.”
“What were they doing in there? That one on the table…” Her brow furrows as she stares at the wall. She cups her chin in one hand.
“You didn’t see their faces?” I ask.
“Their faces… like they were doped,” she says in monotone.
“Dope? It looked worse than that to me.”
“What were they doing?”
“Gives me the creeps.” She stands and paces, with her arms wrapped tight around herself. “They chased us but not for keeps. They could have called ahead. They didn’t. What were they doing?”
“You didn’t see their faces?” I can’t get it out of my head. Their faces looked like the feeling of losing a fight.
She stops. “What’s with you and their faces?”
“They were all hollow. I could see right down them.”
“Nuts! Don’t you go screw loose on me. It was just some guys in a room. I’m sure they’re…” She throws up her hands, “I’m sure they were doing something. Something that wasn’t just standing there.”
“Yeah.” I sit up. “Well there’s good and bad news in this.”
“Spill.” She plants hands on hips.
“Bad news is them who offed Mitts is weird. Good news is they don’t seem too bothered about us.”
“How do you figure?”
“Well, if they’d wanted to catch us, they would have. So I figure they didn’t want.”
She chews a fingernail. “Maybe that’s because they want to know what we’re about and they figure they’ll kill us later. Maybe they followed us.”
“Might have,” I reply. “But we didn’t notice anybody following us, and we was looking. But if they did… well I’m not getting much sleep tonight. Fancy a drink? I saw a bar down the street.”
“No!” She grins angrily, “I fancy my wits.”
“Suit yourself. I need a drink.”
“What we need, is to know what they were doing in there, who they were, and how my sister is involved!” She paces once, a terse, angry little movement. Then she turns to me. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know,” I say, frowning.
“You don’t know? You’re supposed to be this world traveler? Been in lots of weird situations. Talk! Give me context! Plans! Anything!”
“My plan right now is to go get a drink and then maybe trade some stories.”
“You can’t drink anything you worthless bum!” she shouts, gripping the cloth of her dress in both fists. “There are people trying to kill us don’t you understand? It could be the people she stole the drug from, or the people she planned to sell it to, or the people she’s working with, we don’t know! I don’t know anything except I know one thing, mister, I know for damn sure you’re not going to drink anything until we have a plan!”
“Fine!” I wave my arms. “Start talking!”
She blinks, rocks back on her heels and her brow furrows.
I sigh and cover my face. “I know exactly one thing about these people, sister, and that’s what you told me. Sylvia works for a guy named Agafya and they do smuggling work. Well that’s not all you know, ladybird so start singing. You wanna dance? What’s the tune?”
She frowns up a fury and paces past me toward the door, then she turns around and waves her hands in frustration. “Look I just know what she told me and what David said.”
“Fine!” I say. “Start there! How long has Sylvia been a criminal?”
“She’s not a criminal!” Jenny spits the words so hard the effort almost doubles her over.
“I’m sorry! What do you call smuggling, stealing, and killing people?”
Her face turns purple and her lips contort, then with a weird lilt she barks back “Thursday!”
We pause, her doubled over and clutching her dress in both hands, me straight backed and hands open. A neon-colored bird chirps in the window.
“Thursday?” I ask.
“As in like every other,” she replies with a sniff that might be laughter.
“Most folk have their parties on the weekend.”
“Well not me.” She covers her face and a laugh escapes that portents tears. The armpits of her ivory dress are stained with sweat. “What are we arguing about?” she asks as she walks to her purse and starts rifling through it. “Those people, of course they were doped. The bad drugs were half the-“
“Slow down, Lovecraft. I know at some point you got it into your head I wasn’t very bright, but you’ve gotta include me or I’m no help at all.” I offer her my handkerchief.
“Thanks,” she says, taking it and dabbing at her eyes. “I… what do you need to know?”
“I’ll assume it’s a long story so why don’t we start at the beginning. Where are you from? The same place as Sylvia I assume?”
She looks up at me and her brow wrinkles. “Does that matter?”
“Sure. That sort of scenery has a way of sneaking into the spotlight.”
She gives the handkerchief back. “Alright. Well, we’re from south Illinois, down in the tip. We grew up in an old house out in the country. Our father, Sylvia’s and mine, developed real-estate in Chicago, but he wanted us to grow up outside the city.”
“I thought you might be a country girl,” I tell her, pocketing the damp cloth and sitting down on the bed.
“Yeah well, Papa had business interests overseas. When I was still really young he took Sylvia with him on a trip out this ways.” She takes a little step to one side and folds her hands into her armpits, but doesn’t stop talking. “Mother was still around then, she died later of a flu. I remember when they dodged off, just Daddy and Sylvia on his shoulder, at the train station in town, headed for the west coast to get on a boat. I was jealous she got to go, didn’t understand where they were going or how far.”
She turns away from me, staring at the door. “It was a cold day, breezy, those grey clouds that look like wool. Sylvia waved to me, from Papa’s shoulders, right before they got on. Then the train was loud.
“She never came back, not really. We got a telegram from Papa that she’d been abducted. He was in the north of Siam examining a dam and she went missing out of his carriage. He stepped out one second and when he came back, she was gone.”
My dream. Was it last night I dreamed a story like this one? It seems longer. Ice slides down my spine and settles in my stomach. I stand. She walks away from the door almost to the other side of the room, and stops with her back to me. Her shoulder muscles knit.
“They said it was opium farmers from up in the hills. Papa spent a lot of money at first, on police, scouts, even some mercenaries from the British colonies. That didn’t go well but he kept trying, kept paying, until in 29 it all went away, the house, the money. Mother’s health.”
“How old were you?” I ask, “and your sister?”
“When she left I was seven, she was eleven. That was 1922.” She shrugs, then turns back to face me. The red of the setting sun makes her look flushed. “Papa stopped looking in January of 1930. He said there wasn’t any more money. He went into politics. I didn’t see him much, except when Mother died. I don’t think they could stand being around each other then. I think he was relieved.”
As she talks she takes one measured step closer to me and stops, a pace away, staring right at me. Her face brims over with history; it drips from her eyes to make sparks among the clouds of freckles. “My mom died on a Thursday. I went to school. I took care of myself. I take care of myself.”
I ask: “When did you see Sylvia again?”
“I went to university in the city. Sylvia just- she just walked into my dormitory one day. That was last year. November. You know what? I recognized her. I knew her right away.”
She waves her hands in an almost shrug, a gesture of futility and impotence, and a tear drips from her chin.
“It’ll be alright,” I tell her, “we’ll get her back.”
“Yeah,” she says, then takes a handful of my shirt and uses it to wipe her eyes.
“Uh, would you like my kerchief again?”
“Clam up,” she mutters, through the cloth, “I bought you this shirt. I can dirty it if I want to.”
“Sure, as long as we’ve got enough dough to keep us in clean shirts tomorrow too.”
I put my arms around her. Her shoulders are wires and ball-bearings. Her hand against my shirt seems too big for her face. She tugs once on the cloth.
“We’re gonna find her,” I say again.
“This isn’t a thing,” she says back. “I’m letting you hug me right now because I’m unhappy and tired, because my hands are shaking and I’ve been crying and I need a hug. But this isn’t a thing, alright?”
“Yeah fine,” I say.
The hug only lasts a moment, but I had forgotten what it felt like. The smell of hair, the jangling of nerves, the heat of another body present and real, and most particularly, how clearly you can feel another person’s emotions when their heart is a skin’s width from yours. Her heartbeat is like a caged rabbit. Her worry, regret, sadness and fear fill the veins in her limbs with taut energy, a discordant sound that hums in me like I’m the soundboard to her strings.
The mad world of floating color and disconnected images, of auras and faceless freaks dwindles behind that contact, hides its odd empty behind the walls of flesh and care and leaves me be.
Then she backs out of it. The moment and the space between us fill with a silence of evening traffic and chirping birds. With her hands on her hips and shining eyes she continues her story.
“She came to visit pretty regularly. Maybe once a month at first, and then more often. We’d go out to dance, or just walk on Michigan Avenue. She liked the traffic and the lights, but they were also strange to her. Like a feral cat, you know? Then, there was this café on Rush Street, a car honked its horn, and all of a sudden she’s telling me about Pochem Boryat, that’s a place in the mountains, in Burma I think, where she’d been living. I didn’t ask she just started telling me. I guess it was a temple once, and then it was used by the British when they farmed poppies. They’d left a long time ago. It was confusing? She was there to pay a debt, or she was there to work, but she didn’t say what kind of work. She had a boss, or a leader, named Tom I think. I never got the goods on Tom. Then Agafya came and they fought. It might have been Tom against Agafya or Tom and Agafya against somebody else, I couldn’t- she didn’t say. There was fighting. Lots of it. Then she and the survivors joined up with Agafya and he had a plan. That was all she’d say; he had a plan. Apparently it involved smuggling opium into the States. She wanted to stop.
“That-That’s not right. Sorry.” Jenny paces, quick steps and frustrated movements of her fingers. “It was- I mean. David Laurence found me first. He knew she’d been to see me. He told me she was a criminal but they needed to stop her boss more than her. He asked for my help.”
The light outside the room’s one glass-less window has fallen to evening. Somewhere nearby someone smokes a cheap cigarette, and the smell of tobacco mingles with dust, exhaust, horse droppings and some kind of flower out on the street. She turns to face me again and her green eyes glimmer in the orange light, but she’s not done. “David wanted to know how they were getting the drugs into the country, but she never told me that. She wouldn’t talk about the route, or the relays. I think she figured I was gamming to somebody, but she never let on. There were weeks of that. Then all of a sudden I’m riding the train home and she just sits down next to me and says: ‘Get off at the next stop. There’s one last thing.’ I mean, I just about jumped out of my skin. When we got off, she has me wait on the platform and goes down to the street. This guy walks up to her and blam.” Jenny makes a gun with her fingers and fires it. Then she shrugs. “That’s where you come in.”
I swallow my heart and work myself around to saying: “Jenny, thank you. So you have no idea who those people were in the hotel?”
“No.” She throws up her hands in frustration. “Maybe Agafya’s, maybe somebody else. I don’t know. They looked doped.” She snaps her fingers: “Right. David mentioned about that. He said the dope they trade is tainted. It makes people crazy.”
“Yeah,” I say, frowning hard. “Alright.”
I walk to the window and look out. A short, spread-armed tree with leaves shaped like boats the color of green olives grows to the right of the window. Plumes of smoke from stoves and hearths catch the last rays of the setting sun and turn to fire. Below, the empty street is a black river, and rolling green hills hide the city lights in dark specked with a few oil-lamp stars.
There’s something out there I don’t understand. Something sunk their faces in an emptiness as deep as the sky. Something brought me back from the grave. It crouches in the dark of the street, listening to us talk, waiting for our eyes to shut so it can come in past the hanging pieces of cloth that guard the window. I’ve never been afraid of the dark; even as a kid, I always loved the stars, and the stories Mother used to tell always seemed to come from the moon. But I can’t see the moon, and no matter how I search, my eyes can’t pierce the dark cracks between buildings and vein-limbed trees.
Dope. That’s what Nash said. “You know most opium comes from China these days,” I tell Jenny, still looking out the window.
“Yeah David said that,” she says, and the bed squeaks. “Agafya’s people think they’re fighting a war against the British Crown. They found a way to sneak dope into the American markets through Chicago, and it pays for the guns they sneak back out, which go to fight the Peking government.”
“I moved to Chicago to get away from dope,” I tell her. “It’s pretty big in New York, Chinatown, but not as much in Chicago. In Chicago it’s hooch.”
“Well,” she says, “that doesn’t help. You think Agafya might be a Red Russian, helping the Chinese Reds?”
Jenny’s sitting on the bed, her hands under her thighs and her shoulders hunched. In the dim room I can barely make her out.
“Could be but I don’t want to guess about that. Just as likely he’s a White Russian turned mercenary turned petty tyrant. Or he’s neither. Lots of ways to be Russian and neither Communist or Anti. Thank you for telling me your story, I know it isn’t easy to talk about.”
She shrugs. “So have you got any brilliant ideas? My life story inspired a new novel?”
“Not quite,” I say, “Maybe when I’ve got a little more time. We know what Agafya’s into. Opium, guns, probably heroin too. Funny thing is opium isn’t illegal here in Siam. The government has a monopoly, but it’s not illegal to use. For what that’s worth.”
She frowns. “What is that worth?”
“Well it means Agafya either works for the government or they don’t like him much. We still don’t really have a plan. I mean, Garland might get me into Bitter Flower, where we’re guessing Sylvia is, but he wants me to train up my pugilism a bit first. Scares me to hang around for who knows how long though. If your sister got caught trying to scram they could be hurting her now, and we won’t do her a lick of good if we get there after six months of punching roof poles to find out she’s six months dead.”
“Punching roof poles?” the Jenny-shaped shadow asks, but I ignore it.
“Plus, I don’t much fancy hanging around waiting for whoever did for Mitts to come do for us too. No, we’ve gotta find this Bitter Flower. Not next month or next week but now.”
I can hear the grin in her tone: “I like where this is going, but say we find it, what do we do?”
“It’s not my first opium den. I’ll reconnoiter, then leave,” I tell her. “We don’t actually know she’s there.”
“True,” Jenny says, “I guess we bribe your friend Garland. But I’m not going with you. On the chance Agafya’s hatchet men don’t know my face yet, I’d rather it stay that way, in case she finds how to find me later.”
I nod. It’d be nice to have a second set of eyes but we may as well keep a card up our sleeves, and she’s the one with the shooter. A six-shooter is on the low order of trump cards, but Jenny’s got moxie. Moxie is good. Moxie matters.
“By the way, that was fancy shooting at the hotel,” I tell her.
She shrugs. “Luck. This revolver balances silly.”
I squint. “You hit what you were aiming at. Most folk cannot do that, even the ones with training. I’ve seen coppers drop their guns under less pressure than you were.”
Her shadow hunches a little. “You trying to butter me up?”
“No,” I say. “So, Garland will be at his gym before the sun comes up, and chenyen halls are usually open all night. I say we get some rest and move before the light. By the time the sun rises we may well have a look at this Agafya, maybe Sylvia too. But there’s one thing we gotta decide before then.”
“What’s that?” She’s chewing her nails again.
“There’s only one bed.”
She laughs, a miserable little sound. “I guess we’ll have to share.”
“Don’t get any funny ideas,” I tell her.
“Yeah, yeah” she says, “it’s the real ritz. I’m already swooning.”
The mattress of hay is scratchy and uneven. We put our backs to each other and try to get comfortable. It isn’t easy.
I’m in that warm place almost out of thought when Jenny says: “Hey Mark?”
I ignore her, but the damage is done.
“You still awake?” she asks.
“Why’d you punch out the policeman?” she says. “At the hotel. You looked like you were gonna kiss him, then you knocked him shits to mitzy.”
“I dunno,” I say. “He was scary. His face was all messed up.”
She sits up to face me. Her eyes catch the tiniest glint of light. “But how’d you do that?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “It’s just something I know how to do.”
She lies back down and the bed creaks. I can feel her body’s tension like an electric field. I’m going to need every ounce of my wits and energy tomorrow. The people we’re going to see have already proven they’re willing to kill me, but the reminder of what it felt like to shatter a skull with my bare knuckles sets my heart pounding and opens my eyes so wide they brush away any shade of sleep.
“My last name’s Rubicon. You never asked.”
“I thought it was Lovecraft.”
“Hardy har har. Jennifer Hope Rubicon. You never asked, but now you know.”
An odd foreboding chases me to sleep, that it’s a name I ought to know. Or maybe, that it’s one I’ll one day forget.